US School Cheating Scandal Sends Warning on My School

One of the largest school cheating scandals ever in the US is under investigation in the state of Georgia. Last week, the New York Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that one in five of Georgia’s public elementary and middle schools are under investigation for changing student answers on the tests.

The case has momentous implications for Australia now that My School is up and running and test scores have become the measure of a school’s worth, as well as that of its teachers and principal.

The Georgia State Board of Education has ordered investigations at 191 schools across the state where evidence had been found of tampering on answer sheets for the state’s standardised achievement test. Another 178 schools will see stepped-up monitoring during testing.

The investigation is the result of an analysis by the Georgia Governor’s Office of Student Achievement. It flagged any school that had an abnormal number of erasures on answer sheets where the answers were changed from wrong to right, suggesting deliberate interference by teachers, principals or other administrators.

According to the analysis, more than half of elementary and middle schools in the state had at least one classroom where erasure marks were so unusual that cheating may have occurred.

Four percent of schools were placed in the “severe concern” category, which meant that 25 percent or more of a school’s classes were flagged. Six percent were in the “moderate concern” category, which meant that 11 percent to 25 percent of its classes were flagged, and 10 percent raised “minimal concern,” meaning 6 percent to 10 percent of its classes were flagged.

The main focus of the investigation is Atlanta, where 70% of all elementary and middle schools face investigation. At one school, for example, averages of 27 of 70 answers on each fourth-grader’s math test were changed from wrong to right in one classroom. At another an average of 26 of 70 answers on the fifth-grade math test were erased and corrected.

More than half the classes at 27 schools were flagged, and at four Atlanta schools more than 80 percent of the classes were flagged.

Experts said it could become one of the largest cheating scandals in the era of widespread standardized testing in the US. Gregory Cizek, Professor of Educational Measurement and Evaluation at the University of North Carolina, told the Atlanta Journal Constitution_ (11 February) that the extent of the suspicious answer changes is stunning. He has studied cheating for more than a decade, but said he didn’t know of another state that has detected so many potential problems. He told the New York Times (11 February): “This is the biggest erasure problem I’ve ever seen”.

It is the second time in two years that cheating has been exposed in Georgia’s state tests. In 2009, four schools were found to have extensively changed student answer sheets. Court records show that in one case, the school principal and assistant principal had systematically erased and changed student answers to ensure that the school met the “annual yearly progress” benchmark of the Federal government’s No Child Left Behind Act. ( Atlanta Journal-Constitution , 12 February).

The scandal is the latest in a series of cheating scandals across the United States since the No Child Left Behind legislation came into force. If schools fail to meet the federal benchmarks of the No Child Left Behind Act, they are placed in a “needs improvement” category and must offer extra tutoring and allow parents to transfer their children to higher performing schools.

The legislation has placed principals and teachers under intense pressure to improve school test scores and many come to think that they must cheat to survive. High personal stakes are involved for teachers and principals as they fear their careers will suffer from the failure to improve school test scores.

Last year a survey of public school teachers in Chicago by the Chicago Sun-Times (29 August) and the teachers’ union revealed that one-third of all teachers had been pressured in the last year by principals and boards to change student grades. Twenty per cent said that they had actually raised grades under this pressure.

Extra pressure is also being placed on Georgia teachers as a result of a new initiative that ties teachers’ pay to student performance.

Erasing and replacing student answers is just one type of cheating carried out by schools. Others include filling in unanswered questions, helping students with answers during tests and alerting teachers and students to test questions before the test is taken.

The new scandal has raised new questions about inadequate security procedures for tests in schools and the absence of audits of test results across most US states. Last August, a report by the US Government Accountability Office identified many gaps in the security of tests and found that many US states faced challenges in ensuring reliable and valid assessments.

The Georgia scandal was revealed by computer scanning to screen for erasures on test answer sheets. Testing experts say that most states fail to use even this most elementary means to monitor for cheating. Professor Cizek told the New York Times (12 February) that there is no incentive to vigorously pursue cheating because parents and administrators all like to see higher test scores.

Jennifer Jennings, Associate Professor of Sociology at New York University who studies school accountability, said that the Federal government should require states to check their test results. “It’s absolutely scandalous that we have no audit system in place to address any of this,” she said.

Some US states have better procedures in place. For example, South Carolina has been using erasure analysis on tests since the 1980s. If a school is flagged for suspicious activity, the state sends testing monitors the following year, and sometimes educators are criminally prosecuted or lose their teaching certificates.

In response to the latest cheating revelations, the Georgia State Board of Education is setting up new test security procedures. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (11 February) reported that State testing monitors will be sent to each of the 74 “severe” schools and monitors will conduct random checks at the 117 “moderate” schools.

Schools in either of those categories will have to randomly rotate teachers to different classrooms during testing; teachers cannot supervise tests for their own students. At an additional 178 schools, about which the state had “minimal” concerns, teachers will either have to rotate or take additional steps to ensure proper monitoring.

The Georgia House of Representatives will soon debate bills that would make it unlawful to tamper with state tests or help others cheat on them. No law in Georgia currently makes it a crime to cheat. The bills being considered would find violators guilty of a misdemeanour, subject to the loss of their pensions and possibly fined.

The Georgia case raises serious questions about the adequacy of security aroung Australia’s national literacy and numeracy tests (NAPLAN) and auditing of schools.

The administration of NAPLAN relies on principals, school test co-ordinators and teachers administering the tests adhering to the guidelines. It is open to considerable abuse by principals and teachers who face undue pressure to improve results. Some school co-ordinators and teachers have told Save Our Schools that the security arrangements for NAPLAN are totally inadequate to stop cheating.

Test booklets are delivered to schools a week or 10 days beforehand and there is little to stop an unethical principal or co-ordinator from opening them and alerting teachers about questions to practice in their class. Tests are mostly supervised alone by teachers in the classroom, except in cases where assistants may be present for students with disabilities, and there is no monitoring of whether some teachers help students with answers. There are also ample opportunities available after the tests are taken to change answers or fill in unanswered questions.

My School is now a maker and breaker of school reputations and careers. Soaring test scores may put a principal on the administrative ladder, where salaries can rise well into six figures. Conversely, bad scores can mean unfavourable assessments and may even cost principals their jobs, as Julia Gillard has threatened several times.

In this environment, the pressure on principals and teachers to improve their school’s test scores will be intense. There will be no surprise if many are tempted to take the path of their colleagues in Georgia.

Security and auditing arrangements for NAPLAN must be reviewed and upgraded before the next round of tests in May to ensure their integrity. It is a task for the Australian National Audit Office as an independent authority reporting directly to the Australian Parliament on public sector administration and accountability.

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